WTO Fisheries Negotiators Weigh Next Steps as Clock Counts Down to Ministerial

5 October 2017

Trade negotiators are engaged in intense discussions over how to develop new disciplines on harmful fisheries subsidies, with many issues left to clarify and resolve in the two remaining months until the WTO’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Officials in Geneva have held two sets of meetings under the “rules negotiating group” this month, picking up their discussions after the global trade club’s annual August hiatus. Negotiators are aiming to clinch a deal for ministers to endorse in Buenos Aires, with the ministerial scheduled for 10-13 December.

Among the issues they have been examining are how to address subsidies related to overfished stocks, overcapacity of fishing fleets, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. They have also been weighing how to address the needs of developing and least developed country members, such as by providing them additional support or time to implement the new rules or by incorporating some flexibility into some of the bans themselves.

While the fisheries negotiations are far from new, they have been given additional impetus thanks to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes a specific target to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.” (See Bridges Weekly, 4 May 2017)

That same target, known as SDG 14.6, also sets a deadline of 2020 for the achievement of these objectives, and refers to the importance of negotiating “appropriate and effective special and differential treatment” for the WTO’s poorest members. The SDGs were adopted by consensus at a United Nations summit in late 2015, as part of the overall 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Worrisome data about the state of fish stocks has also been a factor. According to a UN report on SDG-related progress, “the proportion of world marine fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels has declined from 90 percent in 1974 to 68.6 percent in 2013” – a situation that experts say has significant environmental and food security implications.

Reviewing the matrix

Before the August break, the negotiating group’s chair Ambassador Wayne McCook of Jamaica had circulated a matrix document collating the various proposals tabled to date.

These seven proposals are from New Zealand, Iceland, and Pakistan; the European Union; Indonesia; the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group; Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay; the Least Developed Country (LDC) Group; and Norway. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017)

The matrix was designed to facilitate the autumn discussions, allowing members the chance to see the areas where there is closer alignment, along with those that will require further definition or negotiation.

Earlier this month, negotiators had met to review the first part of the matrix, which deals with the proposed “general provisions” of a future agreement. This area includes, for example, different proposed versions of the agreement’s preamble, many of which refer explicitly to the role of the 2030 Agenda and/or SDG 14.6.

The general provisions section also addresses definitions to use in a final accord, such as whether and how to define overcapacity and IUU fishing; subsistence, small-scale, and artisanal fishing; and overfished stocks, among various other terms.

Furthermore, the matrix also sets out side by side the different proposals on what types of fisheries subsidies – such as those provided for disaster relief, or to support fisheries management – should not be covered by the planned prohibitions.

Preparing for text-based talks

After their initial meeting to review the “general provisions” part of the document, negotiators reconvened last week from 27-29 September for additional matrix-focused discussions.

Negotiators grappled with a range of technical questions, including how prohibitions on subsidies that support IUU fishing, and on subsidies related to overfished stocks, could work, and on understanding, defining, and measuring overcapacity, according to a Geneva trade official. Sources say that the level of technical complexity is likely to make the coming talks challenging, as members prepare to make the final political trade-offs to clinch a deal.

Notably, both the US and India also aired their views last week on specific aspects of the proposals raised to date, having previously said that internal transitions were preventing them from giving detailed reactions.

While neither Washington nor New Delhi put forward texts, the US clarified its views on the proposed subsidy bans themselves, arguing in favour of a stringent ban on subsidies relating to overfished stocks. Meanwhile, India’s position focused more on addressing possible flexibilities, such as limiting overcapacity and overfishing subsidy bans to areas outside a country’s territorial waters and thus avoid having to create an exception for smaller fishers. That suggestion reportedly drew interest at last week’s meeting.

According to a Geneva trade official, proponents of the seven proposals included in the matrix are now looking to compile their proposals into a single text to serve as a basis for negotiation.

The rules negotiating group is set to meet again this Friday to address other areas of the matrix. That meeting comes just days before a planned WTO “mini-ministerial” in Marrakesh, Morocco, that officials across different WTO negotiating groups are looking to for clarity and political direction on what areas are priorities for ministerial outcomes.

ICTSD reporting.

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